Why being busy is a modern sickness
We have to practice doing nothing more often.
- Constantly being busy is neurologically taxing and emotionally draining.
- In his new book, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes that you're doing a disservice to others by always being busy.
- Busyness is often an excuse for the discomfort of being alone with your own thoughts.
Of all the books from last century we can turn back to for guidance, Alan Watts's The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is particularly suited for this task. Published in 1951, Watts knew post-World War II America was ramping up at unsustainable social and technological speeds. More people were working more hours while offering more excuses as to why they were never really present—the word "more" being the constant catalyst of inattention and stress. He writes:
So many people of wealth understand much more about making and saving money than about using and enjoying it. They fail to live because they are always preparing to live. Instead of earning a living they are mostly earning an earning, and thus when the time comes to relax they are unable to do so.
How little has changed in 70 years.
Jon Kabat-Zinn has spent most of his career trying to halt the sickness of busyness. While a student at MIT in the sixties, he discovered meditation through the work of Philip Kapleau, who, like Watts, recognized the dangers of the increasing speed at which society was moving. By the late seventies, Kabat-Zinn launched an eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which became the basis of his career.
With over a half-century of meditation and mindfulness behind him, even Kabat-Zinn finds himself needing to get busy, as an excerpt from his latest book, The Healing Power of Mindfulness, displays:
I am not keeping myself busy. If anything, I am attempting to keep myself unbusy and finding that to be something of a full-time job.
That's the thing about mindfulness: it's always a practice. Though Watts could not have foreseen the attentional capacities of a nation destroyed by palm-sized computers we carry with us everywhere, he recognized the deleterious effects of industry. He wrote often about the Japanese tea ritual, which is a way of yoking the mind to the moment, of zeroing consciousness in on one object of fixation. Kabat-Zinn, having begun his training in Zen, would also have understood this throughout the rambunctious sixties.
And yet, here he is, 50 years on, recognizing that individual awareness is powerless against the unforgiving force of culture. He finds himself explaining his busyness to someone on the telephone, only after the fact realizing it was just a ruse, a means for justifying potential idleness—a curse in the ceaseless machinations of capitalism. In a moment of lucidity, however, Kabat-Zinn recognizes that every gain comes at a loss.
Saying yes to more things than we can actually manage to be present for with integrity and ease of being is, in effect, saying no to all those things and people and places we have already said yes to.
I'm writing this shortly after returning from the Sunday afternoon yoga class I teach at Equinox Marina del Rey. This week the sequence was "old school," to me, the way I began my training twenty years ago in New York City. Based on the Hatha-Vinyasa system, the style I studied was pulled from Asthanga Yoga, which was invented by Pattabhi Jois roughly a century ago to calm down the relentless churning of the minds of pre-teenage boys. It is a rigorous, physical practice that, ideally, sets you up to enter a state of deep reflection and meditation once you're physically exhausted.
After 40 minutes of continual flow, we went into a long hip-stretch sequence on the floor, each side lasting roughly ten minutes. Throughout I watched shoulders tense, fingertips tap, and eyes scan the room. Attention is never easily won, especially in the Age of Distraction. Yet not everyone: some found a peaceful respite from mind churning. After the practice, one woman who had never taken my class approached me to say that for the first time in weeks her mind slowed down and she felt at ease. The yoga worked.
There are a number of practices we can use to yoke our attention to consciousness—to stop being so busy all the damn time. This is not an exhaustive or even authoritative list. These are simply some of the ways I remind myself that not every moment needs to be filled with something to do. While yoga is my regular go-to there are plenty more.
- Read novels. There's no better antidote than literature. Good stories carry you to places unimagined. Currently that's Haruki Murakmi's Killing Commendatore.
- Float in a sensory deprivation chamber for 60-90 minutes.
- Lie on the ground listening to music after smoking marijuana. I recommend at least an hour. Marijuana is optional; music is not. Here's my current playlist.
- Walk around my Culver City neighborhood. Though Los Angeles is admittedly not a great walking city, there are plenty of crevices to discover. Sometimes that requires driving to a new neighborhood.
- Play with my cats. After ten hours on my computer I lose track of who I even am. Even though I live in a sizable apartment, our three cats spend their days sleeping at various angles on the futon behind me. They remind me that a lot can get done without much effort.
It should be noted that none of these activities involve a phone in hand, or anywhere in sight.
In the end, it's the relationship between our nervous system and the environment that matters most. There is much we cannot control, yet what we can is how we move through this world. Always being hurried, harried, distracted, anxious, not present—busyness is killing us. Like opioid abuse and texting and driving, it should be considered a public health crisis.
Boredom reframed can be liberating. You just have to slow down long enough to recognize that, and then, perhaps most importantly, practice doing nothing.
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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